Day 6 stinks. Literally. At the artist talk given by Zierle and Carter, the audience is assaulted with the smell of burning toast. Outside, volunteers are systematically burning dozens of loaves of bread in preparation for the headgear the artists will wear during their two-day durational action, but the smell invades the HUB. It’s hard to escape. I don’t know it yet – burnt toast foreshadowing anyone? – but strong odors are going to be the order of the day.
Ecce Homo. Behold the man. These are the words said by Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ’s judge and jury, as Jesus’ beaten body is presented to the crowd right before he is crucified. This scene, part of the line-up of images known as the Stations of the Cross, is book-ended by Jesus’ whipping ordeal and the crowning with thorns/public mockery scenes. I was raised Roman Catholic (long since lapsed) but I have to consult Wiki for this refresher. It comes back to me easily. And so it should. Religious upbringing notwithstanding, this image would have been burned into my mind through years of art history courses (again, lapsed) making its appearance as a familiar classical painting motif for centuries.
So. How to remove the religion from Ecce Homo? Carlos Salazar Lermont provides us with a proposal.
In the middle of the gallery floor the artist is lying on the ground in a fetal position. His body is naked, and bound with chains. He is wearing one of those plastic preventative collars you get for your dog, after they’ve had a surgery and you want to prevent them from licking out their stitches. Placed beside the artist’s limp body are a large rusty antique looking gasoline can, and an open box of wooden matches.
The topic of durational performances, and what it means to make an image that only some of the people will see (and for a typically short amount of time) has come up several times in the last few days in late night chatter. There have been a few durational performances in the festival already, and the way Carlos’ offering is listed in the festival materials and in the general announcements frames it in a similar way as a durational performance.
But it’s not. Last night Carlos says something to me about his performance, almost too subtle to make much of a difference, but for me it changes something about the way I view it. He tells me that it is not a durational work. It might be a performance you only watch a few minutes of, but it is not a “classical” durational performance. It is simply a long performance in search of a sustained, single, and specific image. I like this distinction. It calls to mind all the ways artists talk about creating images, and reminds me that as audience it is my job to find a way to see the image, not just look at it. And, despite the fact that the performance is long, this distinction makes the time feel short, and more crucial somehow. There is not as much time to see the image the artist is proposing as you think.
Sitting on the cold gallery floor, it’s cold and I am getting a headache. I can’t imagine how bad Carlos is going to feel when the performance ends. He appears to be asleep. Or passed out. Like he’s drugged himself. Not alert in any way, that is for sure. I wonder, what am I supposed to learn from this image of abject suffering? What am I supposed to be seeing? Where is this single image he was telling me about?
The overall scene suggests several possible starting points, and several possible outcomes. Why is he chained? Why is he wearing an implement usually reserved for an animal? Did he pass out because of the gasoline fumes? Or was he already sleeping when someone placed the gas can and the matches in front of his limp body? Has self-immolation been put-off in favour of a quick nap, or is the audience being directed to design their own terminal ending?
After 45 minutes, I decide to go outside for some fresh air. With my hand on the doorknob, I look back at the scene and in an instant, for what feels like the first time, I see the image. I am not sure if it’s a trick of the fumes, but suddenly the image is there. It hasn’t so much arrived (in the way that Zierle and Carter talked to describe the way the image arrives through the working process in a durational performance) as it has appeared, apparition-like. It wasn’t there and then suddenly it is, and it is more than the sum of its parts. The parts are: the body chained on the ground wearing a plastic crown, the gas can, the matches, yes; but the image is something else entirely. I see the composition in a new way. The body is more than limp, more than still, more than immobile. He is not in pose; he is embodying the body – his own body – in helpless sacrifice, his well being out of his control, for the sake of this image. He is pitiful and helpless. He is also a kind of monument. We watch him, waiting for some cue, indicating what we are supposed to do. Are we here to help, or simply to witness?
When I get back to the gallery with an hour to go in the performance, the scene is the same. Where before the condensation on the inside of the cone was the only indication that Carlos was still breathing, now I can see him move a little bit, small gestures of deep slumber, moving a foot just an inch to get in a more comfortable position, tucking his knees up. The gallery staff have turned on the heat, it’s warm in here, but Carlos is freezing. His skin is covered in goose pimples, and he’s got the shivers. Occasionally his shoulders rattle and shudder.
At the designated end time of the performance, with a silent audience in attendance, the artist is picked up and carried out of the gallery in silence, and as quickly as it appeared, the image disappears.
Photo by Arjuna Capulong
Shannon Cochrane is a Toronto-based performance artist, and cultural producer. She is the Artistic and Administrative Director of FADO Performance Art Centre (www.performanceart.ca). Established in 1993, FADO is an artist-run centre that presents, champions and disseminates the work of Canadian and International performance artists year-round. Shannon is also a founder, co-curator, and organizer of the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art (www.7a-11d.ca). Run by a collective of performance artists, 7a*11d was established in 1997, and presents an international festival every two years. The tenth 7a*11d festival will take place in October 2014.